“We brought our first-ever AI Studio into the conference this year, and that was a great opportunity for us to introduce attendees to diving deeper into the topic, the demos and interactive experiences. So they’re not just hearing about what’s happening in the industry, they’re getting to see it, touch it, feel it, move around it.”
–Tara Reilly, VP-Experiential and Partnerships, Vox Media
Even a bleeding-edge business and technology event like Vox Media’s annual Code Conference needs to be revitalized from time to time, and the forum’s 20th anniversary this year presented the ideal time to stir things up. The invitation-only conference, hosted Sept. 26-27 at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, CA, featured a new location, new hosts, a retreat-like vibe and more offstage experiences than ever before. But one thing didn’t change: Vox’s strategic approach to the event as “live journalism.”
Taking the reins this year were three new tech journalists, who replaced veteran Code Conference host Kara Swisher. Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief at The Verge; Casey Newton, founder of Platformer News; and Julia Boorstin, senior media and tech reporter at CNBC, led the charge across pointed discussions with top business leaders on the most newsworthy topics in big tech.
“[Code] is a long legacy event for Vox Media, and it’s considered a tentpole for us, so we categorize that as driving audience growth, driving revenue, as well as driving content for our sites,” says Tara Reilly, vp-experiential and partnerships at Vox Media. “But the overarching goal is that the conference has historically set the tech and business news agenda for the rest of the year, so it’s about sparking conversations that drive headlines, both for our sites and beyond our sites… It’s going deeper into those topics and looking at it as an opportunity for live journalism.”
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Artificial intelligence was the predominant theme at Code, from the stage to the sponsor activations, but the technology was explored through the lens of how it will soon impact every aspect of consumers’ daily lives, and alter industries that people may not associate with AI, like agriculture and dating apps. In-depth stage discussions ranged from Microsoft’s cto discussing how AI and art will coexist in the future, to Monarch Tractor’s ceo on the future of farming powered by AI, to AMD’s ceo on AI and the chip supply chain, to Warner Music Group’s ceo on how AI prompt-generated music will be coming in the very near future.
Topics also branched out to the WGA strikes, marketing on Roblox, streaming subscriptions, local news and sports, new partnerships and acquisitions, tech announcements (like Photoshop becoming available as a web app, and Mattel’s Pictionary game getting an AI upgrade), and platform transformations, à la Twitter becoming X. In fact, X’s current ceo, Linda Yaccarino, engaged in a scheduled Q&A just one hour after Twitter’s former trust and safety leader, Yoel Roth, was unexpectedly asked to take the stage. Hello, captive audience.
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Artificial intelligence was also the undercurrent throughout partner experiences and sponsored breakfast and lunch “Power Sessions,” which served as deep-dive breakouts and networking opportunities that took the shape of roundtables and panels.
“We leverage [sponsors’] presence to enhance the experience for our guests so that it becomes a symbiotic relationship with thought-provoking conversations, hands-on demonstrations, or sometimes added conveniences,” says Reilly. “That’s always been part of our sponsor approach to make sure that their integrations are strong collaborations and that allows us to yield the best results… We understand our audience, we understand our event, and we know based on their goals how to bring that to life in a really collaborative way.”
A multi-brand AI Studio activation that showcased the tech’s latest advancements was another addition to the conference that got attendees buzzing. The experience encompassed an AI speed dating experience with Replika; robot-powered manicures from Clockwork; an AI wearable designed to reduce stress; and the first-ever public demo of Google Starline, a groundbreaking video chat technology.
Beyond the main conference, attendees were offered ancillary experiences that often took advantage of the event’s picturesque setting. For attendees seeking a fresh start in the morning (or, perhaps, a way to shake off their late-night adventures), Vox Media offered a.m. workouts and wellness classes including e-biking, pickleball, sound baths and chakra cleansing.
Sponsored social events were on the menu, too, and entailed a cocktail reception hosted by BCG; a clambake-inspired, seaside welcome dinner hosted by AlixPartners; a SoundCloud afterparty (Code’s first dedicated afterparty experience for “night owls”); a sustainable dinner reception hosted by Polestar at Montage Laguna Beach; and an opportunity for attendees to test-drive a Polestar 2.
There’s no shortage of conversation to be had at an event like Code Conference, and Vox Media curated the experience and event space to foster those attendee connections naturally. A more intimate venue, the retreat-like atmosphere and a flexible schedule enabled organic networking moments that have become big business for some conferencegoers.
“People are saying that they’re replacing one-on-one meetings with attending these types of conferences, so that when they’re in a room with this many people who are able to progress their business goals, or they’re able to learn from their peers or even competitors, it allows these true networking opportunities to further justify being on-site,” Reilly explains.
Looking ahead to 2024, Reilly says the team will continue to walk the line between preserving the legacy event and ensuring that it’s “growing and developing in new ways.” Consider the Code cracked. Agency: Proud Robinson & Partners.
Spin Through the 20th Annual Code Conference:
Photo credit: Getty Images for Vox Media